9 April 2008

Liberia: U.S Medical Volunteers Share Expertise

interview

Health Education and Relief Through Teaching (HEARTT), a U.S.-based non-profit organization operating in Liberia, aims to educate and otherwise assist local health care providers in improving a community's health care system and infrastructure.

Liberia's health system, like much of the country's infrastructure, was decimated during the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. Clinics were destroyed and equipment and medical supplies damaged or looted. Fewer than 50 physicians remain in the country, compared to more than 200 before the war, according to HEARTT.

James Sirleaf, chairman of HEARTT, was born in Liberia. He suffered from asthma as a child, this helped trigger an interest in medicine, and he went to the United States to study it. In an interview, he first described how he felt about returning home to help rehabilitate the health care sector.

It's a challenge, especially with me coming from such an advanced health care system [in the United States]. In Liberia you have to be innovative about how you treat patients as there is not much available to them and the reality is [the system] is not very advanced.

How do you feel about HEARTT's progress so far?

I think [it has] been fantastic, considering where we started and decided to go. We began 2-1/2 years ago, have made seven trips to Liberia and have been able to take surgeons. But I think that question is probably best answered by the people who we have rendered services to.

How did HEARTT get started?

I went to Liberia with friends in the medical community after the war and we went into [John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital] and realized how far back the system was and what a lack of equipment there was. We treated patients and taught the local health care staff about things we would do. The local health care staff was really interested and positive and asked us if we were going to come back. We decided we can't just drop this, we have to keep doing this.

What were conditions like at JFK when you visited?

There were very few doctors – I think less than five or six at the time. They had very little medication. The medical center has made a lot of progress since then but it still has a long way to go.

To what extent does Liberia need health care training? How bad has the brain drain been?

Brain drain has been tremendous in Liberia. [The country is] 90 percent below capacity of what you need to run a true, solid health care system. People around the world recognize Liberia's needs, especially people from the United States, and there are people trying to make a difference.

Has HEARTT's residency training initiative begun?

It should be launched in July. [Emergency medical residents from the U.S.] will treat patients and also train local staff. Attendants will come with them also. So we anticipate there will be two emergency medical physicians there all the time. Each person will stay for about a month to six weeks. The attendants will probably stay for two weeks each time.

How does your volunteer program work?

It is made up of people who have medical expertise who want to spend some time [in Liberia], roughly two weeks. They apply on the HEARTT website.

We're really interested in people who want to teach because that creates sustainability.

Do you have any new plans or initiatives?

We want to launch a women's health clinic at JFK to have one place that concentrates on [issues such as] birth control, gynecological problems or sexual assault. We plan to launch that in the summer.

In anything you do, especially in health care, band-aids don't work; they eventually fall apart. What we want is to make a long-term difference in the health care system. You do that by training the local people. Training is a big part of HEARTT and that is what creates sustainability.

We're looking for people who want to help make a change and don't want to deal with big bureaucracies but want to make an impact. We don't get any salary. Mostly (our volunteers) are still working [in the U.S.] and don't go to Liberia for a very long time. That's why creating the residency training would be great.

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